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Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; Jared Kushner's Security Clearance Downgraded. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 27, 2018 - 16:30   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But that's also something that we have heard for weeks now. We still have yet to see anything that the White House is doing to make sure this doesn't happen again.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, from Russia cyber-attacks to the Russia investigation, Phil, let's go back to the issue of Kushner's security clearance being significantly downgraded.

The FBI is saying that they hope to wrap up his security clearance in about a month or so. What does that mean? What does that tell you?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That tells me that Kushner is in trouble.

I'm going to assume in the space of 30 days the FBI is not going to do a U-turn and come back to the White House and say, well, we have finished this and we found out he's clean. I think Kelly is going to be put in a difficult situation to say we are never going to close out the investigation to the point where Jared Kushner could get a top- secret clearance.

Is it OK? Whether it's Kushner or anyone else in the White House, is it OK to keep somebody around when the FBI has enough concerns about your background, maybe financial irregularities, we don't know, to say we can't certify you for a top-secret clearance?

I think the question it be, do we downgrade him entirely and say he can't have a clearance?

TAPPER: And let me read a statement from his attorney, Abbe Lowell, Jared Kushner's attorney.

"As to his security clearance, Mr. Kushner has done more than what is expected of him in this process. As General Kelly said, the new clearance policy will not affect Mr. Kushner's ability to continue to do the very important work he's been assigned by the president."

Kaitlan, that's impossible to believe. The guy works in Middle East peace. He reads the presidential daily brief. We're told, all of a sudden, he can't have access to all the information he needs?

COLLINS: Yes. It's pretty much only the people inside the White House who see it that way, that this isn't going to affect his day-to- day life.

And obviously Jared Kushner doesn't see it this way either. That's why he's been so frustrated with John Kelly and feels like this is a direct attack on him specifically, which it kind of is. We did note that people were worried inside the West Wing to raise questions about the questions surrounding his -- Rob Porter's security clearance because they thought it would bring up the scrutiny that has been on Jared Kushner's security clearance in the past.

But what is going to be interesting to watch here is the dynamic of the West Wing. Not just how this is affecting Jared Kushner's day to day, but, essentially, this was a showdown between Jared Kushner and John Kelly. The president technically gave the authority to John Kelly in front of everyone at that press conference.

And he did not give Jared Kushner a waiver. This isn't something Jared Kushner has really seen before when he's gone up against people, whether it was on the campaign trail, or Reince Priebus, people in the West Wing before, where he's kind of come out on the losing end.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Coming up, he just met with the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, tells us what they want Congress to do about guns and gun violence and what could actually happen in Congress. Stay with us. That's next.



TAPPER: We're back with our national lead.

As students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School return to classes tomorrow, we're learning now that the death toll in the massacre could actually have been much higher. The shooter had 180 rounds left in his rifle when he stopped shooting, according to a law enforcement official.

He had etched swastikas into the gun's magazines. Investigators also found indications the shooter tried on break a school window, which they believe he wanted to use as a sniper's perch to shoot outside, but the school's windows are hurricane-proof, and he could not break it.

We're also learning more disturbing details about the avalanche of warnings to law enforcement about the shooter in the months prior to the incident.

In contrast to claims from the Broward County Sheriff's Department, CNN obtained records from the sheriff's department showing at least 45 calls for service relating to the shooter or his brother since 2008.

Callers described the shooter fighting with his brother, cursing at his mother, throwing her against the wall for taking away his Xbox. And in 2014, he was accused of shooting a chicken a BB gun. Our Rosa Flores down there talked to one of the shooter's neighbors

who called 911 a year ago, saying that she believed the boy would become a school shooter, but she was told by a deputy, nothing could be done unless the boy carried actually out a threat.


JOELLE GUARINO, NEIGHBOR: My husband and I both knew that it was not over, that we would eventually see him one day on the news wearing an orange jumpsuit, being charged with murder.

We both knew it. I didn't know exactly how it would happen or how soon it would happen, but I had no doubt in my mind that it would happen.


TAPPER: A group of Parkland students is on Capitol Hill today trying to convince members of Congress to back various reforms in order to prevent any other school shootings.

But at this point, Congress does not seem any closer to agreeing on a plan at all, or anything, from strengthening background checks to raising the age limit to purchase some semiautomatic weapons.


TAPPER: Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, is pushing to raise that age limit. He joins me now.

Senator Flake, thanks so much for joining us.


TAPPER: I understand that you just met with about five students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

I have heard a lot of conservatives say these kids aren't experts. Why are they having an influence on this debate? But you met with them. So, what do you think?

FLAKE: Right.

Well, I think that this is a different kind of tragedy, in that it is high school kids, a sympathetic group, obviously, but a very, very articulate, committed bunch of kids. And they are obviously social media savvy.

And that's why I think they're having the impact that they're having. They're organized, and they're here. So, I'm glad they are. And I hope they keep it up.

TAPPER: The White House says that President Trump still supports raising the age limit for the purchase of certain semiautomatic weapons to 21, which you have legislation to do. He hasn't mentioned that age limit idea in any of his most recent

remarks on guns. There are reports on Capitol Hill that he seems to be walking away from it. Are you worried at all that this is going to play out the same way immigration reform did?

FLAKE: Yes, I am. That is a concern.

But I did just hear a few moments ago that he seems to have committed again to that particular item, raising the minimum age. I hope he has.


TAPPER: I guess the big question, though, for people like you who are trying to get things done and also trying to figure out what the president will sign, are you worried at all that you can't trust the president to stick by policy proposals that he might change his mind about the next day?

FLAKE: Well, it has been an issue. You mentioned on immigration.

There was talk of the Tuesday president or the Thursday president. And he seemed to have changed on a few of those items. It is difficult to negotiate.

But I hope that he sticks with this. He said it a number of times just after the tragedy. And I know that that is where the kids are. That's what they want, and a lot of parents across the country and others too. There's just simply no justification for having the minimum age be 21 for a handgun, but only 18 for an assault weapon.

That makes no sense at all.

TAPPER: Our new CNN poll shows that 70 percent of those polled in this country now support tightening the nation's gun laws. That is up almost 20 points since October.

I guess a question, I don't know if the kids asked you this or not, but it is something on the minds of our viewers, I'm sure. With such overwhelming support for an issue, why does it still seem so unlikely that Congress will actually do anything about it?

FLAKE: Well, this is an election year, and people worry about how this will play.

I think it is long past time that we take some commonsense measures like the one we've been talking about, and also the no-fly, no-buy. I will be introducing that with Senator Collins and a few others today. So, there are things that we can do and we should do this week.

TAPPER: The students probably, I don't know, I wasn't in the meeting, and you haven't told me what they said. But it sounds like one of the things that they want to do is get rid of some kinds of semiautomatic weapons, otherwise known as assault weapons.

Did they push for that and what would your response be one way or the other?

FLAKE: They didn't. I don't want to characterize their positions. But they talked about the age limit and a few other items. So, that's all they talked about in my meeting.

TAPPER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that President Trump can ban bump stocks through regulation alone. It doesn't need legislation.

I have heard from an expert who said that that's not true, actually, that the reason that they're legal is because, if you go through it in the regulatory process, you're taking the bump stock and you're actually classifying it as a machine gun, and that is going to definitely result in lawsuits.

Do you think that it needs to be done with legislation?

FLAKE: Well, I hope they move ahead and put whatever it is, a temporary ban or whatever from ATF. But I do think Congress needs to act on it.

And that's why Martin Heinrich and I are offering a bipartisan piece of legislation, not just bump stocks, but any mechanical device, whether it's a crank or bump stock, that increases the rate of fire to make a semiautomatic weapon act for all intents and purposes like an automatic weapon.

So, I do hope that Congress moves on that. I think we should put it in statute.

TAPPER: Next month, you're speaking at a politics and eggs breakfast in New Hampshire.

This was just announced. For those who don't know, that breakfast is a traditional testing ground for politicians considering running for president.

Do you have anything to tell us?

FLAKE: No. I received an invitation, and I accepted it. So I look forward to speaking there.

TAPPER: Is it possible that you might run for president in 2020?

FLAKE: That's not in my plans. I never rule anything out, but that's not in my plans right now. But I'm glad to be there in New Hampshire.

TAPPER: Senator Jeff Flake, it's always good to have you. Thank you, sir.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.


TAPPER: And you can hear more from Senator Flake on CNN's "THE AXE FILES" this Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN. The horror of Syrian gas attacks on its own citizens may have a North

Korea connection. That's next.


[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A scary story in our "WORLD LEAD" now. North Korea is sending the Syrian supplies that could build chemical weapons. A U.N. Security Council Diplomat confirms to CNN. The New York Times reports that in exchange, Syria is paying North Korea with cash that could be used for its nuclear program. It is the convergence of two countries on the brink with terrifying and dangerous implications. All of this revealed as the top U.S. diplomat in charge of North Korean policy suddenly announced his retirement. I want to bring in CNN's Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon. Barbara, what are national security officials saying are the potential dangers of Syria and North Korea working together?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, tonight, the big worry is, of course, if these two regimes have really joined forces, it could mean a very dangerous new front for North Korea to earn money for its weapons program.


STARR: A frightening report by United Nations investigators has concluded, North Korea has been sending supplies to Syria that could be used in the production of chemical weapons, possibly maintaining a cash flow for their nuclear program. The New York Times who was first to report the story also says North Korean missile experts have been seen working at chemical weapons and missile facilities inside Syria. This while top U.S. post that deals with North Korea are dwindling.


STARR: Joseph Yun, the State Department's top diplomat dealing with North Korea abruptly stepping down telling CNN it was completely my decision to retire at this time. President Trump still talking tough.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If the sanctions don't work, we'll have to go to phase two. And phase two may be a very rough thing, maybe very, very unfortunate for the world.

[16:50:08] STARR: But the departure of the senior respected diplomat leaves the Trump administration without key officials at a critical time. Victor Cha, the long rumored candidate to become U.S. Ambassador to South Korea was dropped by the White House because he was unwilling to support options for limited strikes. And today, the White House offering no sense of urgency.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, PRESS SPEAKER, WHITE HOUSE: I don't have a timeline and I don't have any personal announcements on that position specifically.

STARR: The top military commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks, is expected to leave his post as part of routine changes. The White House insists, there is no gap in decision making. But there may be real risk in not moving forward with concrete decisions on when and how to talk to North Korea.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: The Olympic lull is over and I think we were lulled into a false sense of, oh, maybe this crisis abating but it's about to heat up again.

STARR: Commercial satellite imagery now shows new activity at North Korea's underground nuclear test site as well as an experimental reactor and at a satellite launch facility.


STARR: And what could the next steps be? The U.S. actually not ruling out boarding North Korean shipments at sea to try to keep them from sanctions-busting. Jake?

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us, thank you. If you want to redecorate a government office using taxpayer money, you want to try and find a decent chair for less than $5,000. Next, we'll talk exclusively to the whistleblower who claims she was punished for refusing to allow a lavish makeover of Secretary Ben Carson's office. Stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: They say leadership comes from the top and President Trump is setting the tone for his cabinet when it comes to ethics. President Trump refuses to release his tax returns, hiding his financial interests. His administration will not release White House visitor's logs hiding who may have the President's here. He frequently visits properties that he owns, raising the profile of his private enterprise on the taxpayer's dime. And so with the leadership example set, we also see now from expensive travel to financial disclosures, various members of the Trump cabinet also facing questions over their ethics decisions. Today the woman who was the top career employee at HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is flagging a new concern in an exclusive CNN interview. Helen Foster says she was demoted in part for refusing to break the law and go over budget to redecorate Secretary Ben Carson's office. She filed a whistle blower complaint claiming more than a month before Carson took office. She said she was told to "find money beyond the $5,000 redecorating limit." And that $5,000 she was told wouldn't even buy a decent chair. CNN's Rene Marsh who talked to Foster joins me now. Rene, who was urging her to, in her words, break the law?

RENE MARSH, AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: She says her superiors were. And she says that she was pressured on several occasions to essentially find money as she says in this complaint. You know, we're talking about this money that there is essentially a cap for how much money can be used for redecorating expenses. She says that the pressure came before Carson was confirmed when career staff handpicked by the President's transition team were serving in leadership roles. And those individuals have been in touch with the transition team. The allegations is that Candy Carson, Ben Carson's wife, wanted to redecorate the Secretary's new office and it had fallen on to career employee Helen Foster to make it happen. She spoke exclusively with CNN just a short time ago.


HELEN FOSTER, STAFFER, HUD: It was you know, a back and forth over a couple of weeks, culminating in a one-on-one meeting with my boss who was the Acting Secretary at the time, and he told me again that $5,000 wasn't enough and said specifically, $5,000 is not enough to buy a decent chair and that we needed to find more money for the project. And at that point I said, I can't do that because that is illegal. My sense is that it was coming from Mrs. Carson's desire to you know, have the ability to redecorate the suite and the feeling among the political appointee's staff, the chief of staff in particular, that the furniture in the suite, the furniture that we had was not adequate. It was not grand enough. Suddenly I'm removed from that position and into a position that didn't exist before and given nothing to do.

MARSH: All right, well, CNN reached out to Candy Carson for comments and we did not receive a response. HUD denies the allegations. A spokesman with the agency is telling CNN that they spent less than $5,000, which is the legal limit. They provided receipts showing that they only spent about $3,200 on blinds. When asked why Foster was demoted, HUD told CNN, it's not unusual for employees to be rotated out of their positions, but Foster, she disputes that pointing out that she'd only been in the position for about seven months so rotating her out seemed odd. Foster says that she was being again, pressured to do all this when she didn't budge. That's when she saw the retaliation. Again, the office of Special Counsel now has this case and she tells me that they just interviewed her last week.

TAPPER: Remember when they kept chanting, drain the swamp? Drain the swamp. Rene Marsh, thank you so much. That's it for THE LEAD. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer, he's in "THE SITUATION ROOM" next door. Thanks for watching.